What They Say


On the face of it, Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee (NYRB; first published in 1963), is a narrative portrait of an Italian family: mother Lidia, father Guiseppe (nicknamed Beppino) and their six children, with cameos by grandparents, uncles and aunts. All family members and their dynamics materialize vividly in the writing of Natalia, the younger of the two daughters, who reports what each family member always says, with bare-bones explanation. “Don’t be a nitwit!” shouts Beppino, the most frantic and irascible of them all, in a manner more fretful than bossy. “Don’t be such a moron!” or jackass, or buffoon, or poseur. “Don’t pick at your cuticles!” When Natalia’s brother marries Amedeo Modigliani’s daughter, Beppino pronounces Modigliani’s painting “Dribbledrabs! Doodledums!” At a restaurant in Rome, when a waiter shoos away a woman begging, Beppino shouts at the waiter: “I forbid you to chase off that poor woman! Let her be!” He then dashes over to give her some money. In gratitude the woman begins to play her guitar for him. “Get out of here!” shouts Beppino. “I can’t stand to hear that sound!”

Lidia, Ginzburg’s mother, is given to sudden outbursts of joyous song, mostly tunes she made up in boarding school. Her lexical trademarks are to sigh “How I do love cheese!” and to fuss that her grandchildren “won’t have anything to cover their bottoms!” When grown-up Natalia moves away with her husband and children, Lidia wails, “She’ll let them go around with nothing to cover their bottoms!” Uncle Barbison can be counted on to say “Sulfuric acid stinks of fart!” Aunt Celestine’s refrain is “See that bread there? It’s all barite!” Grandmother (maternal): “Every day it’s something, every day something, and today Drusilla has broke her specs!” Grandmother (paternal): “In this house you make a bordello out of everything!”

And so on—with copious exclamation marks, a simple, elegant device to ensure we can “hear” the family endlessly shouting out the lexicon as we read it. Thank heaven no expert told Ginzburg it’s bad writing. Nor did Jenny McPhee, who translated the book into English and somehow made it look easy. I’m guessing it kept her up at night—many nights. What is the Italian word that became nitwit? or jackass? or doodledums? In English they seem perfect translations, whatever the original was.

The not-funny aspect of Ginzburg’s narrative (which she insisted be presented as a novel) is that it takes place in the 1920s and ’30s, when Hitler and Mussolini were rising to power. Beppino was Jewish; the family and their friends were artists, writers, publishers and the like, all anti-fascist activists and resistance fighters. At any moment, any of them could be dragged away to a terrible fate, and some were: most notably Ginzburg’s first husband, who was tortured to death by the German Nazis after the fall of Mussolini. Ginzburg’s genius is to report the terrible bits with all the rest; the engine is the lexicon and the reader rides it to the end, laughing, weeping, drawing back in horror. All of these turns are the stuff of life, not marginal bad patches. Ginzburg invokes and repeats bits so that the stew of love, fear, anger, comfort, devotion, envy, guilt, clubbiness and all the rest—which every family has, if not as boisterously as this one—comes organically into view with minimal explanation. She arranges things for humour, for pacing, for suspense and shape.

And, in one case, to introduce one of Beppino’s sayings. He responds to any behaviour he deems inappropriate as a “negroism”: talking to a stranger on a train, packing sugar cubes for one of the family’s many bracing hikes, warming one’s feet on the radiator. “Don’t be negroes!” he would shout. What does a writer or translator (or, indeed, a publisher who is reissuing a classic) do with this? Ginzburg put it on page 1, with a few examples and a brief explanation, period. As Peg Bowers points out in her cogent afterword, in Family Lexicon Ginzburg isn’t trying to figure anything out. She “writes to furnish an alternative to carelessness, forgetting, and indifference.”

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Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.



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